By Aron Moss
Each year, we Jews spend so many millions of dollars, and devote so much time and energy, to building synagogues, Jewish schools, and a slew of other religious and academic institutions. Wouldn't it be better if we applied all those resources to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and working to alleviate all the horrendous suffering that goes on in so many places in the world?
Why do you care about the homeless? What's it your business? Are they members of your own family that you should be concerned about them?
And who's children are starving? Yours? Why should you feel responsible for someone else's child? Why is it your problem? What is it that makes you care for the needs of others?
It is certainly not logic that drives you to help others. If anything, it is illogical to give away your hard-earned money--money you may need some day for yourself or your family--to someone who you don't even know. Neither is it human nature that compels us to care for a stranger. And there is no legal obligation to share your wealth with others. So what drives your desire to do so?
The answer: You have values, principles of right and wrong, conceptions of "good" and "bad" that direct your life and demand that you behave a certain way. You don't give charity because it makes sense, or because you instinctively feel the urge to give, or because the law of the land instructs you to. You give charity because it is moral, it is right, it is good to help those who are in need.
Where do your morals come from? What is the source of the value of charity? The Torah. It was the Hebrew Bible that proclaimed that our income is only partly ours. It doesn't really belong to us at all, but is given us on loan, to use to serve G-d, better G-d's world and distribute to the needy. The Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah, meaning "justice." The Jewish tradition saw charity not as a noble act of generosity, but as a moral act of justice. To give is simply the right thing to do.
You have a wonderful sense of values. But values do not live in a vacuum. To survive and spread, values need institutions and communities in which they are fostered and taught. That is the function of a synagogue, a yeshivah, an adult education program. A place where values are taught and lived. By joining a community devoted to Torah ideals, we become sensitized to the needs of others. By studying the Torah's messages and following the way of life it teaches, its values are shared and passed down.
We need to give tzedakah to feed the poor and shelter the homeless. But we also need to ensure that the very value of tzedakah is nurtured and sustained, so that our children should never suffer from moral poverty.